Forty years ago, at the height of the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign, ambassador Yitzhak Rabin lavishly praised the Nixon administration's steadfast support for Israel. He told his Israeli interviewer: "While we appreciate support in the form of words from one camp, we much prefer support in the form of deeds that we are getting from the other."
The next day, in an editorial entitled "Israel's Undiplomatic Diplomat," the Washington Post blasted Rabin for intervening in the elections on behalf of President Richard Nixon and against Democratic candidate George McGovern. But Prime Minister Golda Meir stood by her man in Washington, and Rabin himself was unrepentant. In fact, the minor brouhaha that followed his remark may have actually contributed a few percentage points to the respectable 35 percent of the Jewish vote that Nixon garnered in the November elections. And Nixon's gratitude, for all we know, may have played some subconscious role in his 1973 decision to send an emergency airlift of supplies and ammunition during the Yom Kippur War.
In any case, 20 years later the Republican Party repaid its historical debt to Rabin with compound interest, when President George Bush Sr. made no secret of his deep dislike for Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in the wake of their unprecedented confrontation over settlements and loan guarantees. Many experts believe that fear of further deterioration of relations with the U.S. contributed to the very slim majority that allowed Rabin to gain power in May 1992. Jewish voters, for their part, subsequently punished Bush by giving him only 11 percent of their vote in the November elections, in which he lost the presidency to Bill Clinton.
And it was the same Clinton who, four years later, pulled out all the stops in an effort to shore up the Israeli public's support for then Prime Minister Shimon Peres in his battle against Benjamin Netanyahu. In his book "Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East," former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk describes Clinton's desperate efforts to influence Israel's 1996 elections, including the convening of an anti-terror summit extravaganza in Sharm el-Sheikh; the quick conclusion and signing ceremony of a counterterrorism memorandum in Washington; and even a brazen pledge by Clinton, 24 hours before Israelis went to the polls, that the U.S. would have Israel's back if they, wink wink, "voted for peace."
Clinton's intervention didn't save Peres - but Netanyahu didn't forgive, and certainly didn't forget. In fact, it's possible that his current decision to call for early elections in Israel is designed, among other things, to grant him immunity from similar efforts by a U.S. president who dislikes him - in the best case scenario - just as much as Clinton did.
In fact, by calling for early elections, Netanyahu may see a win-win situation for himself: one the one hand, as long as President Barack Obama is fighting tooth and nail to hang on to Jewish votes, he will be doubly careful not to antagonize Netanyahu in any way, shape or form; and once Netanyahu goes on to win the elections, as current wisdom suggests, he will be able to observe the last weeks of the U.S. election campaign from a position of strength - possibly contemplating moves of his own that might help his good friend Mitt Romney gain an advantage.
Theoretically, at least, it could make a difference. The American Jewish Committee poll published this week showed Obama with a commanding 33 percent lead over Romney among Jewish voters, but Obama's support (61 percent ) was significantly lower than the 78 percent he received in 2008. More importantly, perhaps, the AJC poll was carried out in March, before former Senator Rick Santorum quit and before Romney was the last man standing in the Republican race. In this vulnerable situation, the last thing Obama needs is a fall out with Netanyahu over Iran - or anything else, for that matter.
Nonetheless, the concurrent election campaigns of these two mutually mistrustful incumbents create a volatile and potentially dangerous mix, especially on the Iranian issue. Any bellicose statement issued by Netanyahu for his own purposes - never mind actual action on the ground - will be viewed with suspicion in the White House and potentially interpreted as an attempt to ratchet up tensions, spike the price of oil, harm the American economy and boost Romney's chances.
If, on the other hand, some agreement is worked out in the nuclear talks with Tehran, the Republicans will strike out with all their guns blazing - but not before trying to ensure that Netanyahu is leading the way. Here is where Netanyahu's life gets complicated: if his criticism of Obama's diplomacy with Iran is too harsh, no matter how justified, it will be seen as an attempt to intervene in the American elections. But if he stays quiet, his right-wing rivals will portray him as weak and ineffectual. And while a blistering attack by Netanyahu may inflict real damage on Obama's standing - and not only among Jews - it is still a risky move: if Obama is nonetheless reelected, not only will Netanyahu find it difficult to launch a new chapter in his troubled relations with the American president, he may find himself actually longing for the good old days he had before.
A small example of the kind of minefield that lies ahead can be found in the September 4 date that has been chosen for Israel's upcoming elections: It just so happens that one day earlier, on September 3, the Democratic National Convention opens in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Barack Obama will be crowned as his party's presidential candidate.
The accepted norm in the U.S. is that during conventions, members of the opposing party lay down their political arms to allow their rivals to bask in the glare of the national media. But Netanyahu, as far as we know, is not a member of the Republican Party and his choice for the timing of the Israeli elections is bound to deflect at least some of the attention away from the Democrats' extravaganza. And the chances that the White House will believe that this is some inadvertent, innocent coincidence are, one suspects, virtually nil.
Follow me on Twitter: @ChemiShalev
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